The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. It is a momentous decision. No one knows the scale of the consequences that will follow a UK departure from the EU – and the only thing we can say with some degree of certainty is that they will be substantial both for the UK and the European Union. They may be so big that there may not even be a Brexit. I am not saying that as snooty criticism of the people that voted to leave but because much may change until there is a negotiated divorce agreement and, more broadly, a better idea of what Brexit represents in terms of political choices and trade-offs. David Cameron resigned as a consequence of the referendum outcome – and tory Brexiteers will not have to take charge of Britain and confront EU policy in other ways than they have done in the past. Corbyn may be forced out of his position – and Labour may get a leader that is electable and more favourable to the EU. There may be a general election before the full divorce agreement has been negotiated – and that can change the politics around Brexit. Scotland may have a second referendum on its independence from the UK; Northern Ireland may demand a referendum as well. It will take a long time to unwind Britain’s current integration in the EU and all of this may create a different view of the desirability of Brexit.
While there are many ifs and buts, the reality now is that British voters have decided to leave the EU. And they did not do so because a majority of the population has become “racists” and “fascists”, which some commentators on social media has suggested. Nor did Leave win because it fooled enough voters with the idea that NHS would get more money and immigration will be radically cut if only Britain departs from the EU. All of that played a role, of course, and the coming days and weeks will give us a better idea of the motivations for those that voted for Britain to leave. But two simple facts are that the EU has never been very popular in the UK and that now is an exceptionally difficult time to convince any electorate in Europe about the merits of EU membership.
The result, however, will put enormous pressure on political leaders in Britain and the EU. The UK will now have to make up its mind what alternative to EU membership it actually wants. Given the emphasis in the campaign on migration and reclaiming full sovereignty to the Parliament, it will be difficult for the next Prime Minister to lead a government that wants membership in the EEA. However, a government that starts from the premise that the UK should leave the single market will get a cold reception from businesses that thrives on easy access to the single market. During the campaign, even the less fanatic Leavers gave the impression that the single market does not matter and that the UK will belong to a free trade area from Iceland to Turkey even if it leaves. That will be a difficult view to sell in the next few years when the economic realities of departure get clearer to voters. The UK has a market relation with Europe, not a trade relation – and there is now trade agreement in the world that will be able to substitute full participation in the single market.
We should also hope that cooler heads in other EU member states and in Brussels will manage the response from the other 27 members. Politicians in France will be under pressure to play hardball with the UK in order to convince French EU sceptics that they shouldn’t fall for Le Pen and her demand on a French referendum. Politicians elsewhere will be under similar pressure. However, it would be incredibly short-sighted of EU-27 if they pushed a forced timetable on Britain’s process of leaving, or demanded that it should be punished. It would also be bad politics. The notion that people would turn against the calls for referenda or EU departure because they would fear the consequences will just perpetuate, if not reinforce, the sentiment that the EU is a bad arrangement. That sort of politics has not exactly worked well in Greece or other countries with growing criticism of the EU. If the strongest argument for the EU is that it would be too painful too leave, it is a matter of time before other countries will leave.
A final point about the “sociology” of the Brexit vote. Much as some would like to portray the Brexit result as a vote for a Britain that is open, global and liberal, the reality looks to be different. It is too early to say exactly what broader political sentiments that have dominated among Brexit-voters, but it is safe to say that those that supported Out did not see the referendum as a “libertarian moment” in British politics. What can be said with a greater degree of certainty, however, is that demography played a critical role for the outcome: the relation seems to be that the greater share of a constituency population that is older than 65, the more likely it is that Out carried the constituency.
We will soon know more about what groups that voted in or out, but the likely role of age in the British referendum fits a pattern. Outside the euro crisis countries, the sociology of the revolt against the EU is dominated by those that are grey-haired. They have conservative opinions and, if they are not supporting conservative parties, their sympathies are with the insurgent parties on the right that campaign on a traditionalist agenda. They are hostile to globalisation and the pace of social modernisation – and they put central importance on issues such as the integrity of national borders and traditional identity. They have what an economist would call “incumbency advantages” and, generally, a NIMBY attitude to societal and economic change. This is the new face of the rebellion against globalisation.